ragged edge magazine online



Issue 5
September, 2001


Read Cal Montgomery's
Critic of the Dawn


Read Martha C. Nussbaum's Disabled Lives: Who Cares? in the New York Review of Books




abstract scribbles

'Disabled Lives' -- a commentary

By David Pfeiffer

My partner -- my wife -- and I are mutually dependent. We take care of each other, as do most married couples. I am no more dependent than most people are dependent.

Yet many non-disabled people would describe me as severely disabled and dependent, solely because I use a wheelchair. That is what ethicist Martha Nussbaum seems to be doing in her "Disabled Lives: Who Cares?" in the January 11, 2001, issue of The New York Review of Books, which Cal Montgomery dissected so powerfully in her "Critic of the Dawn" piece (Ragged Edge, May). Nussbaum's discussion of people she calls "severely disabled" reinforces the widespread belief that all people with disabilities are very dependent upon non-disabled people.

Gauthier, Rawls and Nussbaum are all making moral judgments about people with disabilities: we have no place in society so we should not exist

Some of us are, it's true; but non-disabled persons are dependent on others as well. Nondisabled people receive "care," too -- sometimes quite a lot of it. If you doubt that, just consider the level of services -- "care" -- which professional athletes receive. If the reader does not know that professional athletes receive services paid for by tax dollars, please take a look at the football and baseball fields and basketball courts built with tax money on which high school and college athletes prepare to become professionals. Pay attention to the amount of tax forgiveness municipalities give professional athletic teams for locating there. The state of Hawaii gives the National Football League two million dollars a year to stage the Pro Bowl here.

Perhaps from ignorance, Nussbaum perpetuates a number of common misunderstandings about people with disabilities. While she notes that many elderly persons do not receive care which "shows respect for their dignity," she fails to note that many persons with disabilities do not receive services which show them respect, either. Nussbaum's discussion of "the burdens on people who provide care for dependents" reinforces the idea that people with disabilities are burdens, with little understanding that the "burden" is caused by the inequality of services, not by the person who's disabled.

This same prejudiced attitude is the basis for philosopher David Gauthier's assertion (noted by Nussbaum) that people who have "unusual" needs -- as they define unusual" -- cannot be a party to any moral relationship and thus cannot be equal to others. It also underlies philosopher John Rawls' statement (also noted by Nussbaum) that society is only for people who can act to one another's mutual advantage. Both Gauthier's and Rawls' reasoning leads one to conclude is that persons with disabilities cannot be free, equal, and independent.

Although one can observe that people with disabilities are neither free, equal, nor allowed to be independent, there is a clear difference between observing our situation and justifying our segregation and forced dependency. None of the three ever note this distinction; they seem not to question the rightness of the status-quo. Gauthier, Rawls and Nussbaum are all making moral judgments about people with disabilities: we have no place in society so we should not exist.

Nussbaum makes an extraordinary statement: "We learn to ignore the fact that disease, old age, and accident impede the moral and rational functions, just as they impede mobility and dexterity." What? Because I had polio 58 years ago when I was nine years old and have used crutches, a cane, and now a wheelchair, "disease" and "age" "impede my moral and rational functions?" Holding a Ph.D. in political science (focusing on public choice), entering my 40th year as a university professor, having over 190 publications to my credit, being a policy analyst specializing in disability issues in the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, being a past president of the Society for Disability Studies, and now the editor of Disability Studies Quarterly, I would suggest that neither my moral nor my rational functions have been "impeded." I would argue that they have been heightened.

It seems Nussbaum thinks people with disabilities are basically -- fundamentally -- different from people without disabilities. "We forget that the usual human life cycle brings with it periods of extreme dependency, in which our functioning is similar to that of the mentally or physically handicapped throughout their lives," she writes. To Nussbaum, it seems, there are independent people and there are dependent people -- with all people with disabilities being the dependent ones. Yet many non- disabled people I know are quite dependent, in ways many people with disabilities I know never are.

At one point Nussbaum seems to be speaking directly to me: "Take two people, one in a wheelchair and one not. If they are to have a similar level of mobility, a lot more will have to be spent on helping the person in the wheelchair." Hah! I challenge Nussbaum to a five-mile race on the nearest track. Unless she is a marathoner, I shall finish the five miles well ahead of her.

Her statement is pure ableism: she assumes that the status-quo lack of access is "natural" and "right." The present lack of access in our buildings is due to nothing more than policy choices, enacted in today's building codes. If access requirements had originally been included in the building codes, nothing would need to be spent to correct the prejudicial aspects of those buildings which were built to code and made inaccessible in the process.

At one time slavery was "natural" and "right." Later segregation was considered "right." At one time the wife was considered the husband's chattel, his possession. Having made some (but not much) progress in overcoming those prejudicial attitudes today, we are left with Nussbaum's ableism -- that the status-quo of lack of access is "natural" and "right."

Elderly persons should receive care because of their earlier periods of productivity, writes Nussbaum, citing Gauthier; people with disabilities have not had earlier years of productivity to justify services, she and Gauthier both say. Both simply accept as a given that people with disabilities are not economically productive.

Yet this is not true. We are not simply consumers; we are also producers. I know many people with disabilities who work hard, earn good salaries, who contribute to the economy and to society. I know just as many people without disabilities who do not work hard, barely earn any income, and make questionable contributions to the economy and to society. And there are many people without disabilities who are quite rich and make no contribution to either the economy or to society -- people who are themselves economic and social liabilities. None of this has anything to do with being a person with or without a disability. It has to do with bigotry.

Perhaps Nussbaum does not intend to contribute to the ignorance which produces the bigotry which causes questions to be asked about our worth, but she clearly does. These questions about our worth then lead to questions about whether we should be allowed to continue to live. This is the place where Hitler started. Professor Nussbaum must help repudiate this tendency in our society. It is here, and it is growing.

David Pfeiffer is Resident Scholar at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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